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Famous Social Justice Activists of the 20th Century

The 20th century was a time of significant advancement in the United States, and among those who helped shape this country are the famous social justice activists of the 20th century.

These brave men and women could make change happen by using their voices, bodies, or pens. They stood up for what they believed in when people disagreed with them, sometimes risking everything.

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Famous Social Justice Activists

The people on this list come from all walks of life: artists, writers, union organizers, politicians… some well-known figures, and lesser-known heroes.

This is just a sampling of Americans who impacted during the 1900s as activists, but it’s not exhaustive! There are so many more worth mentioning that this list can’t be all-inclusive – but we hope you’ll find something new.

In the 20th century, American activists made countless contributions to their communities and country. They also faced many challenges that they overcame with resilience. Here are just a few of them:

  • The Selma march in 1965 was led by Martin Luther King Jr., an activist who promoted nonviolent protest to achieve civil rights for African Americans. He organized boycotts and marches such as this one, leading people all over the country to fight for equality and justice.
  • In 1969, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected into congress. She became New York’s first female US representative in 1972, leaving her legacy of fighting for women’s rights behind.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer fought against segregation during the civil rights movement.
  • Ella Baker. She was born in 1903 and lived until 1986, so she was alive for a large chunk of the 20th century. Baker’s activism spanned many causes, including civil rights, women’s liberation, and black power movements.
  • Angela Davis, an African American woman who became an activist because of her own experience with racism and other injustices that she witnessed around her, such as police brutality against blacks and Latinos, to name just one example.

The United States had many famous social justice activists in the 20th century.

They have been instrumental in fighting for civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, among other things. Through their advocacy, they helped shape society to be more inclusive and diverse.

Famous social justice activists

More Famous Social Justice Activists

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served 12 years as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She is thought to be one of the most famous women in history.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X was a Muslim from the US who rose to prominence as an African American civil rights leader and a key figure in the Nation of Islam. He then converted to Sunni Islam after meeting Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. He was assassinated in 1965. His ideas, his political views, and comments made in various interviews are controversial to this day.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, social and political activist, and writer. She became nationally recognized as a women’s liberation movement leader in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In 1966, Steinem published an article in Show magazine exposing the poor pay and working conditions of Playboy Bunnies, which served as a backdrop for the Bunnygate storyline in Season Three of Mad Men.

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan was one of the founders of the feminist movement in the United States during the 1960s. She was born on February 4th, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois. Betty was an American writer and activist whose book “The Feminine Mystique” is often credited with sparking second-wave feminism in America.

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was an American politician who became an activist in the gay rights movement. After coming out as gay, Harvey Milk quickly rose to prominence in California’s LGBT community. He united with unions, peace groups, civil rights leaders, and feminists to promote social change for LGBT people.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was an American socialist, pacifist, civil rights leader. He was born in 1912 to a working-class family in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His father was a factory worker, and his mother was a domestic servant.

Rustin was one of the leading figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He organized training programs for Freedom Riders and helped plan the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously proclaimed, “I have a dream.” Rustin also played an essential role as a mentor to Rev. Jesse Jackson, helping him develop his leadership skills and break into politics.


The social justice movement has been around for decades. It is essential to know its history to understand how far they have come and where there are still areas that need more work. We hope this article caused you to see your heroes in a new light or even discover some new ones! For those who want to take action in their communities with something as simple as holding hands with someone different than themselves, here are some great organizations that can help get them started:

– Interfaith Youth Core

– The Peace Alliance

– Hands Across America Foundation

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